Skip to main content

Mud and Dreams: Israel and Antisemitism

What follows is the written text of my Yom Kippur morning sermon exploring the recent war in Gaza, antisemitism and our best response to the world's evils.

I returned from my annual trip to Israel searching for a return to normalcy. The signs of the war I left behind appeared everywhere. I ventured to West Neck Beach to join my friends for a morning swim in the Long Island Sound. It is my latest fitness passion: open water swimming. The parking lot was filled with trucks and tents. Apparently West Neck Beach parking lot is the staging area for the filming of “Royal Pains,” a show often filmed in the Huntington area. Over the years there have been times when our showers and bathrooms have been transformed into a Tiki Bar. The signs of the weeks prior reappeared. My mind wandered to my friends and acquaintances waiting at their army units’ staging area on Gaza’s border for the start of the ground offensive. Our parking lot appeared as such a trifling by comparison. A staging area for a bad TV show. A staging area for troops readying for battle. 64 Israeli soldiers were killed in action. 2,200 Gazans died in ruins.

On another day, I was at the office and the custodial staff was moving furniture in the floor above me (this was at 430 North Broadway). Such rearranging of the tables and chairs in the catering hall there often made loud noises in our offices below. There was a loud bang. I sat up and thought, “I have to go to the bomb shelter.” The war continues to find me. And then I remembered where I was. To be honest I never felt threatened or even afraid when I was in Jerusalem. It was not like life stopped. On the two occasions when I did what I was supposed to do and followed protocol, here is what happened. The sirens went off. I walked down the stairs of my apartment to the basement and greeted whoever else was there. We introduced ourselves if it was our first meeting. Then came the routine. Count the explosions (1-2-3-4) and later confirm the news reports to see if your count was accurate. (“Four rockets intercepted in the Jerusalem area.”) Wait 10 minutes, say goodbye and then return to the apartment and most important of all continue with your day as if nothing happened. Our office staff with whom I Skyped thought my attitude was rather cavalier. In Jerusalem however where there were 90 seconds of warning there was little cause for alarm. In fact I went for my scheduled run about an hour after the second warning siren. And yet I was surprised how those booms found their way into my heart.

While the attitude of everyday Israelis might be nonchalant (what choice do they really have?) the decision of the Israeli government to defend its citizens against such rocket attacks is absolutely just. It is the right, and obligation, of every nation to give priority to the lives of its own citizens over the lives of others. In the course of one week alone during July Hamas fired over 1,000 rockets. If not for Iron Dome (Kippat Barzel), and the activism of AIPAC and the support of the US Congress and in this case the support of President Obama, the summer would have been far different. I would have been afraid to continue with my day as if nothing happened. All Israelis, like the citizens of Southern Israel who have only 15 seconds to run for cover, would have then spent the better part of their days and nights in shelters.

Still the heart beats with fear from this summer of war. Many of us have spoken about my experiences and our feelings. We are angry about the world’s reaction and its indifference to Jewish pain. We are maddened at how quickly it takes up the case of Israel’s enemies. Let me focus on these issues this morning. First an ancient story. You know it well.

When the Jewish people were leaving Egyptian slavery they reached the shores of the Sea of Reeds. God performed a miracle and parted the sea so that they could cross the waters to dry land. Their Egyptian enemies pursued them and were drowned in the sea. We celebrate this miracle every time we gather for services with the words of Mi Chamocha. Most people don’t think about this and most certainly don’t dwell on this but if the waters just receded then the people were walking through mud. I have been thinking about that image. It occurs to me that every miracle has its mud, every miracle has its yuck.

I believe the creation of the state of Israel is a modern miracle. It stirs my Jewish heart in ways that I still struggle to understand. And this I also realize, this miracle too has its mud. And so this morning we are going to wade through some mud. We are going to get a little dirty and it is going to be somewhat uncomfortable and even messy. This sermon is the starting point of what I hope will be our continuing debate. I really hope that some will return this afternoon for our open discussion about world events. I hope that more will get involved in our Israel Committee.

Here is the first bit of mud. Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, argued that the creation of the Jewish state would forever solve the problem of antisemitism. Oops. That was his argument for why we needed a state for the Jewish people. He did not care one iota if it was in Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel. He did not think we should even speak Hebrew there. His writings grew out of his reporting on the Dreyfus trial in France. Captain Dreyfus, a French Jew, was tried and convicted of treason for one reason. Because he was a Jew. Herzl came to believe that only if we band together in a state of our own can we cure antisemitism. What bitter irony! In our own age attacks against Jews have become synonymous with hatred of Israel. Do I need to recount the many examples from this past summer? “Gas the Jews” was shouted at a pro-Palestinian rally in Germany just months ago. The movement on college campuses of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions of which the majority of my favorite rockers are also supporters (shout out to the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Lady Gaga and Alicia Keys for playing in Tel Aviv) is growing stronger. At the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) where my daughter is a student some Jewish students were targeted with eviction notices on their dorm room doors.

The New York Times, which I still read no matter how angry it makes me on some days, on Wednesday in an article about the most popular names in Israel (by the way the answer is Mohammed) offered this seemingly parenthetical phrase: what the Israeli government likes to call the Jewish state. What? Are you kidding? Likes to call the Jewish state? I have never seen such clarifications about the many Muslim states throughout the world. I have never read such off hand comments about our own nation where the President lights a Christmas tree and holds an Easter egg hunt on the White House lawn. To be fair a Seder is also held in this White House. The point is not of course about how inclusive our government may or may not be. Israel was founded on the dual principles of being Jewish and democratic. Such insidious asides strike at Israel’s very legitimacy, which should always be a given. Israel was created out of vote by the United Nations, which the United States supported, and the Arab world rejected. Its legitimacy is a given. Its acceptance among the family of nations should be a foregone conclusion. There is legitimate criticisms of its policies. Citizens of the world are free to protest its policies at Israel’s embassies throughout the world. When those criticisms become attacks against its legitimacy and its very being, or metastasize into criticism against Jews, then those words become antisemitic. The world appears at ease when Jews are victims but agitated when we gain power. There is no sin in wielding power, especially when defending our lives.

Only Israel has to defend its right to defend itself. And so never before have we felt so alone. For those around my age and younger we can scarcely remember a time when antisemtism was so public and so vengeful. What appears so clear friends and neighbors are unable to understand. Who would sit idly by, or wait weeks, or drop warning leaflets before a military strike, while rockets are fired at its citizens or tunnels are dug under its borders? How can we be right and the rest of the world wrong? I will tell you how. Because we are!

Hamas bears greater responsibility for the destruction that was visited upon Gaza this summer. Here is an organization whose raison d’etre is the destruction of the Jewish state, whose very charter makes use of the vilest of antisemitic tropes. Did you know that 800,000 tons of cement was used to construct tunnels whose sole purpose was to murder Jews across the border? Apparently that is enough cement to build the foundations for eight skyscrapers. What better lot could Hamas have built for its citizens if it was not singularly focused on hatred, death and destruction? Did you know that 150 Palestinian children died in accidents constructing these tunnels? Investigate that UN Human Rights Council!

Mahmoud Abbas’ recent speech at the UN was disgusting in its suggestions that Israel engages in intentional genocide. Mistakes were certainly made, but genocide? That suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of history. Let us be honest. Hamas is at fault. Do not think that Hamas fights Israel because of settlements in the West Bank. It denies the legitimacy of Tel Aviv. It attacks the Arab-Jewish coexistence so often found in Haifa. Still Israel cannot wipe its hands of care and concern for the people of Gaza. 2,200 Gazans died. True many were Hamas combatants. But many were not. Children died in Israeli strikes. Of course I know that Hamas fired its rockets from schools, that Hamas intentionally endangered its citizens. However we must not allow its followers’ hatred of us, or even their desire for our destruction, to harden our hearts. We must fight the tendency to become callous and indifferent to the pain and suffering surrounding us. True Israel’s responsibility is first and foremost to its own citizens, but its interest, its care and concern must extend beyond its borders.

The rabbis teach. When the Egyptians were drowning in the sea, the angels in heaven began singing with joy. God rebuked them and said, “My children are drowning. My children are drowning.” Elie Wiesel said: “There are the Palestinians to whose plight I am sensitive but whose methods I deplore. Violence and terrorism are not the answer. Something must be done about their suffering, and soon. I trust Israel, for I have faith in the Jewish people. Let Israel be given a chance, let hatred and danger be removed from her horizons, and there will be peace in and around the Holy Land.” (Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech, December 10, 1986) He spoke those words in 1986. Still true. Still sadly true.

Some more mud. And this is where this morning’s enterprise grows uncomfortable. Israeli settlers sometimes evict Palestinians from their homes. Israeli soldiers did not always behave perfectly. War by its very nature is imperfect and imprecise. And saying that should not make me an Israel hater, an Israel basher. Your cause can still be just, even if your methods are not always perfect. Let me also say, since now I am getting up to my knees in the mud, President Obama is right when he calls for a Palestinian state, when he points out that maintaining control over the West Bank erodes Israel’s democratic values. But this truth is difficult to hear because it comes from a president who only belatedly calls evil by its proper name. President Obama’s hesitancy to get involved in Syria, his apparent trust of Iran’s intentions, his only recent and reluctant attacks on ISIS, makes one wonder if he still believes that he can reason with evil. ISIS cannot be reasoned with. Evil cannot be excused. It can only be confronted.

Prime Minister Netanyahu understands better the realities, he sees the evils that surround Israel. Sometimes I wonder if he only sees the external threats. He appears unable to see the dangers the occupation of the West Bank represents to Israel’s character and soul. As my teacher Yossi Klein Halevi wrote: “I believe that Israel's long-term survival depends on ending the occupation, on empowering our neighbors. The Jews didn't come home to deny another people its sense of home.” He captures the ambivalence of many Israelis when he continues, “But how to create a Palestinian state outside my window that could well be taken over by Hamas? How to share the governing of Jerusalem with a Palestinian state — negotiated, say, with Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas — when we could wake up one morning and discover that we are ‘sharing’ our capital city with a genocidal enemy?” (“How Do Israelis Cope?, LA Times, September 12, 2014)

In Israel such sentiments led to a sense of despair about this summer’s war. Here we go again. Push them back until next time, people said. They appeared to say, There is no end game. But we are obligated to ask, Where is the end game?. There is only one way out and that is to figure out how to empower moderate Palestinians (and I don’t mean Palestinians who I always love) to take over more and more rule of the West Bank (and perhaps Gaza), and to help such leaders gain more responsibility for the everyday lives of Palestinians. Years ago I visited the soon to be completed Palestinian city of Rawabi in the heart of the Palestinian controlled West Bank. This is a planned city, it is hoped on the scale of Columbia, Maryland. Israeli authorities have oftentimes thrown up bureaucratic roadblocks against its completion. To my mind they should instead be shipping tons and tons of cement to Rawabi. Help its leaders realize their dream of a modern, pluralistic Arab city. This would only further the cause of peace. This is only but one example. A Palestinian state, living in peace alongside a Jewish state, is in Israel’s interest. Many are saying, “There he goes again. What a dreamer.” Guilty.

This is what I believe. Come at 3 pm and I invite you, throw some mud. But come prepared to offer a suggestion for another way out. Obama is right. Netanyahu is right. Obama is wrong. Netanyahu is wrong. Is it possible that two leaders who appear so diametrically opposed to each other could both be so right and both be so wrong? Is it possible then that the truth could emerge if there were to be honest debate and discussion? The status quo is unsustainable. It will erode our dreams for Israel. It will bring more destruction to Gaza. God will again rebuke us. But Zionism is about rewriting history and cursing destiny. Israelis can write a new story. It is about not giving in to fate. History is for us to craft. We can redeem it.

Part of that redemption begins with an honest heshbon hanefesh, an accounting of our own deeds. However right was Israel’s founding, and again I believe it to be a miracle, we must come to admit that Palestinians were displaced in those years. Not all left their homes on their own accord. (Read Ari Shavit’s new book if you want to learn more about this.) As much as I might wish otherwise I cannot insist that Palestinians refer to Israel’s founding with the rhythms of my narrative. They might forever refer to what I call Yom Haatzmaut, Israel Independence Day, as Al Nakbha, Catastrophe. Peace cannot hinge on the squaring of our narratives. Leon Wieseltier observed: “Ethical life is the transformation of there into here. Mentally, we must live large if we are to live significantly. But I fear that mentally we are living small. In our foreign policy, we are abandoning the world to its chaos and its cruelty, and disqualifying ourselves from acting on behalf of the largest and the most liberating ideals.” (“Xu Zhiyong's Brave Human Rights Activism in China,” TNR, February 1, 2014) I ask, Can Palestinians’ there ever become our here?

Let us hope that President Obama now understands, however belatedly, that we must sometimes fight for these ideals, that we must sometimes defend these dreams by placing soldiers in harms way. Let us also pray that we come to recognize that the ideals of remaining a vibrant Jewish democracy hinge not only on the stories that we tell our children, but creating the space for peace to emerge. Perhaps all we need in this day and age is some distance and some borders. If Israel truly matters then it must become more than mere talking points. If we really love Israel then we must not be afraid to wade through the muck and argue about what is best for its security and its character. We must care about preserving its soul as well as its body.

Some might be saying, “While the world throws mud us, and worse rockets, we should not criticize ourselves.” But such comments deny the significance of Yom Kippur. It is a day given to self-examination, it is a day that teaches that we can only achieve reconciliation with others if we honestly examine our ways. Al cheyt shechatanu…For the sin we have committed. There are those as well in good measure. We are strong enough to get knee deep into the thick of such debates.

I have two dreams for Israel. That it will see peace and forever live in security and safety. And that it will realize its Jewish and democratic values. That it will not be Jewish to the exclusion of its democratic principles and not democratic to the exclusion of its Jewish heritage.

The best part of those swims with which I began today’s sermon is always the return swim home. We always try to route our swims so that we swim against the tide on the way out and with the tide on the way back. The tide is of course this powerful, unseen current that can make for the most challenging or the easiest of swims. There have been days when the difference between the fight to the turn around point about a mile out and the swim back to the beach was ten minutes. Then there is nothing quite like that return swim with the tide pushing you home.

I have read enough Jewish history to know that we have always fought the currents and tides of history, that we have defied all expectations and persevered despite many attempts to destroy us, that once we only dreamed but today we have before us the miracle of a vibrant Jewish democracy in the land promised to our forefathers, but what I would give to even just once feel like we were swimming with the tide, that the world had our back and that we were not swimming alone each and every year, that there was no us and them but only one current and one tide and it carried us together toward peace.

That’s the dream that keeps me going. That’s the dream that sustains my soul. Take comfort in it now. Take heart in dreams on this day.